Anyone who has ever played sports has dreamed of being the hero. Whether it is getting the game-winning hit, scoring the final decisive goal, or crossing the goal line as time expires, athletes dream of making the big play to win the game. For most of us these chances at athletic heroism end after high school, if we were lucky enough to even play on that stage. Sure there is the summer league softball or the coed volleyball leagues as adults, but the real competition extends past our teenage years for a very small percentage of us. For me, my opportunity came during my senior year on the basketball court.
I knew going into my senior year that the season was going to be rather rough. We had just gotten a new head coach and I was the only returning starter on the team. I wasn’t anything special either. I was only average in height and speed but I was smart enough to manage a game as the point guard and I didn’t make a lot of mistakes. We only had two other seniors on the team and neither was going to start so it was clear that this was going to be a rebuilding year as they say in sports. As a veteran on any team knows, rebuilding doesn’t help players near the end of their careers. To make things even tougher, our first game of the year was to be against a private school from our town in the annual Thanksgiving Tournament. Not only would every hoops fan in town be there to watch us play the second ranked private school in the state, but the best player from our team the previous year was now a starting forward at that very same private school. He had been an all-conference player for us but had switched schools during the summer. The anticipation was high, but the expectations were mixed to say the least.
The gym was packed that night. There were three local schools in the tournament that year and a visiting Milwaukee school. With two highly ranked schools being there, the private school we played and the Milwaukee school, and this being the opening weekend, the place was sold out. We were scheduled to play in the first game of the tournament which was to begin at 6:00 p.m. on a Friday night. As the team captain, leading the team onto the floor was exhilarating. With the bands playing, my family being in attendance and the students, both current and those former ones home for Thanksgiving, jawing throughout the gym, the scene was set.
To my surprise we started off really well. We were able to hit a few shots while it was obvious the chemistry for their team was still a work in progress. They had better athletes and a better team then us but they were still trying to find their roles while we had basically played together most of the summer and knew what to expect. The thrill of the first game, the rivalry and the huge crowd kept me going most of the first half but by half time I was exhausted. Luckily we had stayed within a few points and half time gave us a break that we needed.
The second half stayed just about the same. We were able to hang around but could never quite tie up the game or take the lead. As the fourth quarter was winding down we had little choice but to foul to try and stop the clock and get the ball back. That strategy worked. Their team missed a few free throws and again we hit some big shots. With only a minute left in the game we actually took the lead by a point. After a timeout they came down the court and worked the ball around until they hit a wide open lay up. The crowd was going crazy and both teams were scrambling around the court. I got the inbounds pass and just slowed things down. We were only down by a point, heck, we should never have been that close, and we still had thirty seconds left. I brought the ball down court and we started passing it around in the natural rhythm of our motion offense. They were swarming the ball and we really couldn’t get a good look inside to the one real post player we had. People were screaming and the opposing fans even started doing a fake count down trying to get us to force a shot prematurely. I sent a skip pass from the top left of the key to the right corner. The flow of our offense brought me to the top of the key. My teammate got double teamed as the clock hit ten seconds and as the defense slid down into the lane I found myself wide open. He jump passed the ball back to me at the top of the key and this was my opportunity. I didn’t think about the time left on the clock, I didn’t think about driving to the basket or even passing the ball. In a fluid motion I caught the pass, squared my body and shot. I remember back-peddling toward half-court with my hand still in the air as the ball went through the net. The crowd exploded, my team was jumping around and the feeling I had can only be realized by someone who has had that opportunity to win a game and has done it.
The other team made one last desperation toss at the basket to no avail. We had upset the second ranked private school in the state and better, we had won bragging rights in the town. Even with our best player on their team we were able to not only hang with them but actually beat them. I was swarmed all the way off the court. Friends and fans continued screaming even after we hit the locker room. The high I felt lasted all through the night and even into the next day. There is no other feeling like the feeling of winning the game. And though we went on to get waxed the next night by the school from Milwaukee, and even though we did have an average year, that game and that shot made my season. Even today I can joke with friends I have that went to that private school about how I hit the three pointer to beat them way back in the day. And I can tell it still bothers them as much as it still makes me smile.